John L’Heureux was a prolific writer and former Stanford professor who died April 22nd in California. His wife, Joan L’Heureux, initially told the New York Times that the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease (1). Within a few days, though, theNew Yorker published an essay by L’Heureux on why he would die by assisted suicide (2).
The piece, which was somewhat unimaginatively entitled “On Death and Dignity”, may have omitted salient facts. It is conceivable that he may have mischaracterized his wife’s stance. I have even considered the possibility that it was a hoax – one of L’Heureux’s more bizarre bits of fiction – but that seems unlikely since he did die when he said he planned to. The bottom line is that if L’Heureux’s death went down as he recounted, it is almost a textbook study on how these laws in and of themselves encourage suicide.
L’Heureux seems to have been a suggestible guy. He started college intent on becoming an actor but then his roommate out of nowhere said, “Why don’t you become a priest. You’re smart enough.” (3) L’Heureux became a Jesuit priest.
Some years later, he left the priesthood – not because he had problems with doctrine or with the Jesuits – but because he felt it was too hard to be the type of priest he wanted to be. Shortly thereafter, he married Joan, a former nun (4).
When L’Heureux acquired Parkinson’s disease (PD) as an older man, he was understandably concerned because his father had PD and ended up with cognitive decline and in a nursing home, fates that L’Heureux deemed inevitable. He referred to himself and his father as “parkies”. Yet, his literary career flourished. He continued to write novels and his short fiction appeared regularly in the New Yorker which he took as reassurance that he “was still compos mentis.” He obtained a contract to publish his new and selected stories as a collection subtitled “And Maketh Many Wild Leaps.” L’Heureux said that “my heart indeed made many wild leaps.” (5)
This all sounds like things were pretty good. Yet L’Heureux wrote that after another of his works was published, “I first looked into California’s death-with-dignity law. I found it hard to believe that the state was sanctioning a kind of suicide. Suicide? No, death with dignity.” (6) His focus on the law (which arguably did not even apply to him), the state and buzz words is telling. At another point in his essay, he said he was invoking the law as “justification” for his suicide. My guess is that the law whispered to him suggestively. Instead of “why don’t you become a priest”, it was “why don’t you kill yourself?”
L’Heureux discussed things with Joan and “we came to agree that, in this case, death sooner was better than death delayed.” (7) He did not say that Joan accepted or became resigned to his decision. Instead, they both agreed, he should die. Perhaps you could call it a unilateral suicide pact.
Read more at Not Dead Yet…